The Western Sahara Conflict: On Authoritarianism & Self-Determination

The Western Sahara, located in the southern part of Morocco, has been the object of intense litigation and military conflict since Spanish decolonization in 1975.

Following Spain’s departure, the disputed territory was divided between Morocco and Mauritania, without the consent of the Sahwari people, the region’s local population.

Led by the POLISARIO Front (a Spanish acronym for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro) and supported by Algeria, the Sahwari launched a war of secession against Morocco and Mauritania, and established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976. SADR has been recognized by 85 countries around the world, and a full member of the African Union since 1984.

In 1978, Mauritania relinquished its claim to the southern part of the Western Sahara, which Morocco immediately annexed. For most of the 1980s, the POLISARIO waged a guerilla war against Morocco to secure the Western Sahara’s full independence.

The end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union gave the United Nations an opportunity to force both parties to sign a cease-fire in 1991 and to accept the terms of a U.N. sponsored referendum for self-determination under the supervision of the UN mission in the Western Sahara (MINURSO).

The UN has yet to successfully implement the referendum because of conflicting claims made by Morocco and the POLISARIO Front, particularly in relation to identifying eligible Sahrawi voters. No agreement has materialized on the final voter lists, leading to several rounds of failed negotiations.

While Morocco claims historical links to the territory, the POLISARIO claim the Saharawi are different from native Moroccans, and have a legitimate right to secede from Morocco.

Recent academic and journalistic attention continues to frame the Western Sahara quagmire almost primarily as a struggle against Moroccan authoritarianism reflecting the inherent “tension between [the] rule of law and respect for human rights and that of global geopolitics.”

Such discourses have been further sustained by high profile campaigns, notably by Hollywood star Javier Bardem’s documentary “Sons of the Clouds: the Last Colony,” which was screened in the US Congress. Reference to the region as the “last colony,” while factually wrong, has provided a very attractive punch line for the aforementioned discourses on the Western Sahara.

While it is difficult to argue against the robust authoritarianism that continues to characterize both the Moroccan government and the POLISARIO, these emerging narratives do not advance our understanding of the complex nature of the conflict, and offer only a partial reading.

It is indeed true that, in recent years, Morocco has systematically moved to stifle freedom of expression for those Sahrawi protesting for self-determination. The bloody protests in Gdeim Izik in 2010, which were started by disaffected camp dwellers angry at their socio-economic plight, transformed into general dissent against Morocco’s violations of individual and group liberties in the Western Sahara. The Moroccan state’s violent repression of these demonstrations, and its use of military and extra-judicial proceedings against those involved in the protests did little to help its image in the region.

The fact that Morocco is an authoritarian state does not, however, in and of itself, delegitimize its claims to the territory. As deplorable as they are, Morocco’s human rights violations do not and should not undermine the country’s historical claims to the Western Sahara. Nor do they constitute a viable argument that diminishes the voices of those Sahrawi who are not in favor of the POLISARIO’s secessionist claims.

Narratives on authoritarianism also place much more emphasis on Morocco’s autocratic regime with little to nothing to say about the equally, if not more, repressive government in Algeria, which has been a staunch supporter, host, and benefactor of the POLISARIO.  The POLISARIO-controlled camps in Tindouf in southwest Algeria have been the site of numerous human rights violations and an increasingly paranoid and repressive political order that crushes dissent. There have even been allegations of slavery inside the Tindouf camps.

The concept of self-determination is an important dimension of the conflict, but its modern application has deemphasized the historical territorial claims of Morocco in the Western Sahara. Modern self-determination theory in its two broad categories, classical and secessionist, neglect the colonial legacy of the territory, and the difficulty of identifying Western Sahara’s indigenous peoples because of a rigid positivist legal framework.

Nascent anti-authoritarian narratives espouse these shortcomings and provide a limited historical account of the conflict. For one thing, they set Spanish colonial rule over the region as a starting point for the conflict’s history. So the story goes, after the Spanish left the Western Sahara in 1975, Morocco took advantage of a highly contentious and ambiguous advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and mobilized a popular march to annex the region. The ICJ decision had found that Morocco had  historical ties to the region in the form allegiance from some Sahrawi tribes.

This reading of history treats the region, prior to Spanish colonization, as “terra nullius,” a “no man’s land” devoid of any vestige of political order or forms of governance. Such an interpretation is misleading. Prior to Spanish rule, in 1902, local Sahrawi tribes enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, while also (as the ICJ found) enjoying historical ties in the form of allegiance rites to various Moroccan monarchs.

In fact, Morocco’s autonomy plan for the region in 2007 offers the Sahrawi a return to this system under Moroccan sovereignty. While the plan was endorsed by the United States and France, the POLISARIO and Algeria have summarily rejected the plan, demanded Morocco’s full withdrawal, and called for a plebiscite to decide self-determination.

Algeria’s involvement highlights another important dimension to the conflict – its geopolitical nature. Regional instability in the Maghreb and Sahel regions further complicates the Moroccan-Algeria detente, especially in light of the recent surge in radical Islamist terrorism.

The mounting threat of radical Islamism in the region, renewed interest in the Western Sahara from international powers after the rebellions in Mali, and the terrorist attacks on foreign workers in the Amenas gas complex in Algeria have all changed the nature of the Western Sahara conflict.

The United States is reportedly establishing a new base for its unmanned drones in the Sahel region just southeast of the territory. The ongoing Arab uprisings have also reached the Western Sahara, which witnessed an increase in local protests demanding various individual and group freedoms, including the right to self-determination.

Without a calibrated process of constructive negotiations, self-determination may embolden other secessionist claims in the region and create a power struggle between Morocco and Algeria in much of the southern Maghreb.

In fact, the doctrine of uti Possidetis in international law (that a territory remains with its controlling party at the end of conflict unless otherwise stated by a treaty or agreement) was specifically formulatedin the nineteenth century to put an end to the potentially destructive nature of irredentist conflicts.

The conflict in the Western Sahara has raged on and been ignored for almost four decades, with seemingly no end in sight. All parties have held steadfast in their intransigence much to the detriment of indigenous populations living under harsh conditions in the territory.

Whether in Moroccan controlled parts of the Western Sahara or in the camps run by the POLISARIO inside Algeria, autocratic forms of governance allow limited space for dissent. Individual liberties are an important dimension to the conflict that needs to be addressed by all parties in order to guarantee a democratic renewal in the Western Sahara, as well as in Morocco and Algeria. At the same time, however, Morocco’s authoritarianism should not be used to push the country to forfeit its claims to the territory.


*Mohamed Daadaoui is Associate Professor of Political Science at Oklahoma City University. He is the author of “Moroccan Monarchy and the Islamist Challenge: Maintaining Makhzen Power” (Palgrave 2011) He is also the author of Maghreb Blog.